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School Bullies (from The Times)

November 18, 2018 10:01 PM
In The Times, Leading Article, 17th November 2018
The following content is from an article which was published in The Times on Saturday November 17th.

Parents of disabled children get used to hearing cliches. When in March this year the government introduced measures to help those with special needs, it promised to "unlock their potential" and put "families at the heart of the process". For many such families their recent experience of government help has been rather different. The Times reports today that local councils have been blocking special needs children from the basic assistance to which they are entitled, and that as a result children with autism, Down's syndrome, or hearing problems have been left without places at special schools, or extra support in mainstream ones.

In the past four years councils have spent about £100 million fighting parents who seek support for their disabled children, and have lost nine out of ten cases. Families, meanwhile, have been forced to remortgage their houses and run up credit card debt to pay legal fees in the battle for their children's education. Some councils are alleged to have lied to parents about their rights: telling them, for example, that a child needs to be lagging two years behind their peers in academic terms to qualify for support. Others use a law firm which was forced in 2016 to apologise for tweets mocking the parents of the disabled.

This behaviour is seriously misguided. Councils are slyly taking advantage of some of those least able to fight back - cash-strapped parents with their hands full. They are doing permanent damage to the life chances of the children involved.

There is mounting evidence that early inter- vention, such as speech therapy or specialised coaching, can vastly improve the outlook for those with learning difficulties. One recent study tracked a group of autistic children who had been given targeted therapy at about the age of two, and found that five years later their improvements in IQ significantly outstripped those of their counterparts. Several in the group had progressed enough to warrant a better prognosis. For deaf children, similarly, early coaching is vital, as there is a key window for language acquisition beyond which the process is far slower and harder. The science is straightforward: infant brains are malleable, and grow steadily less so. The earlier that help is given, the better.

Councils understandably argue that they are juggling finite resources. Pressure on special needs budgets has risen because of population growth, an increase in the number of children diagnosed, and a 2014 change in the law that means councils must provide support until the age of 25, rather than 18. In addition, they are coping with austerity, which means that resources are stretched thin.

These cuts, however, are a false economy. Early help can stave off more expensive help later. A 2013 US study found that early therapy for autistic children paid for itself within a few years, as less support was needed in school. Benefits could also be felt later, and more widely. Help autistic people when they are young, and they are more likely to find jobs and stay off welfare. Another US study estimated the cost of keeping high-functioning autistic people out of the workplace at up to 2 per cent of GDP.

This decision is costly, both in terms of the legal fees councils are now paying, and in the problems they are pushing into the future. More importantly, it is immoral. Children with special needs do not deserve punishment. Councils should rethink their priorities.

Saturday Times - Leading Article Web Link